He tosses the ball into the air to get a feel for the weight. The pain in his shoulder is getting worse, and he knows he only has a few more pitches left in him. He gazes over to the bullpen where the reliever is warming up; a smile sweeps across his face. The young man stands on the rubber with such poise and strength, confident in his abilities. The kid tosses a pitch and the loud clap can be heard over the roar of the crowd. The old man on the mound has spent his career teaching him everything he knows about the game, and soon it would be his turn to lead the team. He is proud of the younger player’s accomplishments.
The old man took a deep sigh. “But I still have a few more pitches to go, son,” he says to himself.
The infielders are still taking throws from each other. These players have been with him for as long as he can remember. Like a family he loves every one of them. Each has played a special part in their success over the years, at times saving him from a critical situation. Together they had survived. Together they would live on. But the pain in the old man’s shoulder made him wonder for how long.
He tosses the ball into his glove now and prepares for the batter standing in the on-deck circle. He raises the glove to his face as he has countless times before. Immediately the sweet aroma of leather and oil hits his nostrils. It reminds him of a summer from long ago.
His son had been only five then, just learning how to play the game. The old man had gone from store to store to find the perfect glove, genuine American leather stitched together with durable leather straps. The one built to last a lifetime. He wanted his son to have the finest, to have what he couldn’t. At home, he had spent hours upon hours rubbing oil into the leather letting it soak up the liquid just the way his father had taught him when he was a kid. Each night the old man had wrapped the glove with rubber bands around a ball inside to break it in. He wanted to present it to his son before his first practice.
“Here, son, this is for you.”
“What is it?”
“Just a little something.”
The son excitedly ripped open the plain brown box and extracted the dark, mahogany mitt ready for use. A smile as wide as the Grand Canyon swept over the boy’s face as he fit the glove over his small hand.
“You got me one!” he shouted. “Thank you!”
“Let’s go. We’re going to be late.”
Now standing on the mound, the old man feels a pang of regret as he remembers the sudden change of expression on his son’s face. I wish I had said what I wanted to say, he thinks. I wish I had said, ‘I got it for you because I love you.’ But that wasn’t how he was raised. Expressing feelings was never a natural thing for him. He did it in other ways like taking his time working on the glove. But still.
The umpire signals to him that he is ready to begin this last inning. All balls on the field find their way back to the dugout; all except for the one in his hand. He grips it tighter remembering the memory. He twists it in his glove. He can feel each rough stitch and coarse cross seam. Above the brim of the glove the batter steps into the box and digs his front foot into the dirt. His bat twirls like a windmill as he readies himself. This is the third time they have faced off. (The first time the batter had swatted his first pitch down the left baseline for a double scoring two runs. The second time he had belted his second pitch over the center field wall.) The old man catches arrogance in the batter’s eyes. Beneath him the catcher squats down awaiting the first pitch. His fingers flicker below his mitt in a ritualistic dance. The old man nods with approval at one of the combinations, but his right shoulder pulses with fire.
“Just a few more pitches,” he reminds himself.
He stands erect both feet square on the white strip of rubber elevating him above all others. He rotates the ball in his glove and places his two forefingers on the seams. He focuses in on the mitt leveled between the batter and the plate. The batter takes another practice swing anticipating where the ball will land. The old man musters all of his strength ignoring the throbbing in his arm. He begins his wind-up.
“TIME!” the umpire behind him calls. The old man aborts his throw and spins around to see the man with his arms spread out wide.
A pudgy man wearing a pullover wind breaker and baseball pants exits from the third base dugout and walks toward him. He signals two fingers to the bullpen for the reliever to join him. Immediately the young player trots onto the field and meets the two men at the mound.
“The kid’s going to take your place,” the manager says.
“I’ve got a few pitches left,” the old man pleads.
“You’ve carried the ball this far, it’s time to let the kid pick it up.”
He hesitates, but with a nod and a grin the old man eventually places the ball into the new pitcher’s hands. The young man grips the ball tight feeling the intermingling of rough and smooth, soft and coarse surfaces. They remind him of one from his past.
It had been given to him when he was eight years old. A lone ball resting in a plastic case molded just for its size sitting atop a golden colored plastic stand. It was a cheap trophy but one that came from the heart. On the ball had been written a date, one that had seeming little importance but to him meant everything. Just below it were written the words: “First Home run, First Grand slam.” It had sat on his shelf for years gathering dust amidst the trophies and accolades he had amassed throughout the years.
He watches his elder stroll confidently off the field amidst the cheers and applause. His had been a good game. He had played it right. But now that turn was ending. The old man had been the heart and soul of this team. He had willed them forward when no one else had believed, and he had steered the ship for years convinced of their destination. Now that job was his.
The old man stops short of the dugout and turns. He catches the young man’s eyes and stares. His eyes seem to say, “This is your game now. I believe in you,” but no words are ever spoken. The young man understands. He felt it when the ball hit his palm. Then the elder player turns, descends into the home team’s dugout, and fades into the darkness of the clubhouse.
Next to that baseball had sat his first glove that his father had given to him.
This moment reminded him of it. It had been one of the greatest treasures of the young man’s life. When he received it, his father had said no words of love, nor offered any of encouragement. But he hadn’t needed to. The hours spent with the oil had spoken what his father couldn’t.
“Thanks, dad,” the young man says then turns his attention onto the batter. He knows how dangerous this guy has been, but he is determined not to let the game get away this time. He steels his eyes on the catcher, receives his signal, and winds up into his motion. His eyes never waver from his target as he releases the ball toward the catcher’s mitt.